Filipino Kitchen: Documenting Philippine Cuisine
SPOT.ph blogger Yvette Tan talks about the Chicago-based group that organizes events centered around Filipino fare.
(SPOT.ph) Filipino food has finally reached the global mainstream, with mostly American publications extolling its virtues and even trying out their own versions of Filipino hits, with mixed results.
Even though the cuisine has gotten more exposure internationally, there is still a need to educate non-Filipinos on its intricacies. That’s where Filipino Kitchen comes in. Run by co-founder and photographer Natalia Roxas, co-founder and writer Sarahlynn Pablo, and project manager Caitlin Preminger, Filipino Kitchen (FK) is a food and media events company based in Chicago. “Beyond that we explore and study Filipino gastronomy. We communicate that through speaking engagements, workshops, lectures, pop-up dinners, and our annual Filipino food and arts festival. Since we also travel a lot, we get the privilege to tell the story of our diaspora through food,” Roxas says. “We hope that the website can be a resource for Filipinos and those who are culturally curious all over the world to be able to learn more about our cuisine, history, and culture.”
“We also want it to be a place where our stories can be preserved, and the people who are behind the food are called by name and can tell their story. Indeed we are in an age of celebrity chefs, but there are so many in the back of the house, entrepreneurs, farmers, artisanal food producers, historians, labor organizers who you don't hear about. And of course, the very enthusiastic home cooks and eaters of Filipino food!” Pablo adds.
FK has worked with “various Filipino American chefs and organizations such as Chef Chrissy Camba of Top Chef Seattle, Chef Sharwin Tee of Curiosity Got The Chef of Lifestyle Network, Manila Social Club known for the Golden Donut, and a lot more; and the reception has been amazing, we have been covered by multiple Chicago mainstream press such as Chicago Tribune, Red Eye, Chicago Reader, ABC 7, WGN TV, and NPR.”
They started FK to offer their mostly American audience insight into what Filipino food really is. “We were tired of seeing how mainstream food media write about Filipino food as if we are such a novel idea to them that they take it out of context on how they write about Filipino cuisine. What is a better idea than to write or photograph and explore Filipino cuisine from the perspective of Filipinos instead of what ‘white America’ thinks of it,” Roxas says.
“So much is left out. And we get it, the writers have limited word count, they have editors who cut articles down to size and sometimes to follow the trend, rather than speak about the seeming un-sexy history and facts like colonialism. But this doesn't fit our needs as Filipinos,” Pablo adds. ”Our mission is to connect you to your culture and history through our cuisine. Having written our mission this way, notice that Filipino Kitchen's main audience is people of Filipino descent. Of course we welcome the opportunity to educate audiences who show enthusiasm, curiosity, and respect for our cuisine, culture, and history as well.”
Roxas and Pablo, who are of Filipino descent, have fond memories of Filipino food. “I was a picky eater growing up but I do have great fond memories of buying taho every morning and eating adobo with mayonnaise. I use to sneak around behind my Mom’s back to buy fish balls and dirty ice cream as well,” Roxas says.
Pablo’s experiences with Filipino street food are not so clandestine. “I remember going out with my cousin to buy hot pan de sal at the UP Diliman campus. (My aunt is a now-retired professor of food technology with the Bureau of Fisheries.) My family would visit during rainy season always—in the U.S. it was our summer break—so our merienda trips would always be underneath [the] cover of [an] umbrella, and back into the house to eat with my mom, aunties, and cousins. These experiences are a treasure of family and food.”
The website began just before Filipino food hit the American mainstream. The women say that it’s been a positive cycle: The cuisine’s wide acceptance has helped the website gain traction, and the website has helped more people understand the nuances of Filipino food. “When we started Filipino Kitchen we were in the cusp of all the noise for Filipino food. It has helped us with opportunities and opening doors for us to be able to travel and speak and cook Filipino food all over the U.S. We have done speaking engagements in Harvard and other universities,” Roxas says.
Pablo agrees. “It's interesting: Things haven't really changed even though there is increasing mainstream media attention. One of our core values is community. As Natalia and I were building FK and building community with many chefs and restaurateurs and scholars, we found (and continue to find) that we are all on the same page as far as our passion for Filipino food. It's been a humbling, wonderful experience and privilege to meet and work with them and for our community.”
That said, there are continuous challenges to be faced, especially in a dining world that seems to just get more and more crowded. Part of the challenge comes from the Filipino community itself and its notions of what "Filipino" should be. This mentality is sadly one of the things that keeps Filipinos divided, but is something that FP hopes to overcome. “Since we do more outside of the website, that is: pop-ups and events. The challenges we faced varies in the situation from the nay-sayers that compare what we serve is not as good as their lola, nanay, or tita to asking us to do free events,” Roxas says. “We have been accused of not serving Filipino food at our festival, that we do not have rice, or play Filipino music…when all the food is prepared by Filipino-American chefs or cooks, all the artists are of Filipino descent, all the music being played is by Filipino American house DJs.”
This doesn’t stop the women from spreading their message, however. Fortunately, the public is slowly taking notice. “We organize our annual Filipino food and arts festival called Kultura Festival in Chicago. We also organize various pop-up dinners all over the U.S. We are hoping we can do some in London and Paris for this year. We are also organizing the first Filipino Food Symposium in the U.S. this year,” Roxas says.
“2017 will be our third year producing Kultura Festival. We schedule it to begin Filipino-American History Month in the U.S., which is October. We were honored to be invited to the official White House celebration this past October,” Pablo adds. “We will be speaking at Mid-West Filipino American Summit at Marquette University, Milwaukee, and last year we spoke at UniPro Summit in Seattle; FACT at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana; and two occasions at The Field Museum, where there are 10,000 artifacts from the Philippines... To have the culinary arts represented next to the other Filipino arts—martial arts, pre-Philippine tattooing and baybayin, history, music, and dance—that was truly something special. To practice the arts is an act against tyranny and oppression, especially when we are talking about the arts of the Philippines.”
The women have likewise risen to the challenge of recreating authentic Filipino flavors while making it appeal to a U.S. clientele. “It is always looking for the right ingredients is a challenge but we have been fortunate that we have Seafood City in Chicago and the West Coast. Filipino cuisine has taught us to be able to adapt Filipino flavors with what we can find locally. As far as taste, we try to get it as close as it is from the original flavor profiles. We try not to be apologetic with the food that we serve and explaining it to our audience,” Roxas says. “We have been told multiple times that Filipino food is similar to Southern soul food and that our food is always made with love. They love being able to try new things and have an open mind about it.”
“To build on what Natalia said about soul food, it's that our history is so tied to our cuisine. Like soul food, much is born out of survival and resistance,” Pablo adds. “People who are new to Filipino food often remark how delicious it is! And it is delicious!”
Unfortunately, the popularity of a cuisine comes with people trying to "make it their own" without understanding the culture and historical context that surrounds the dish. This is called co-opting, and the most famous incident involving Filipino food was when Bon Appetit made their own version of halo-halo using ingredients like popcorn and jelly beans. Roxas and Pablo offer their two cents on the issue that plagues not just Filipino food, but many so-called ‘ethnic’ (itself a problematic term) cuisines as well. “We need to be careful of what we wish for because we are wishing and working for our food to be in the mainstream and yet we are open to be co-opted. We need to be able to stand and educate people about our food to be able to keep our integrity,” Roxas says.
“One of the things I love the most about producing our own events is that I get to see someone's reaction when they try Filipino dishes for the first time. I love that more people are getting introduced to Filipino food right now, and that there are more Filipino chefs getting to cook, or feeling like they no longer need the permission to cook the food of our ancestors and our parents. I am glad to see that Filipino food in general is getting more mainstream press because that will help our restaurants stay in business and encourage new ones to open. But the community, our community of Filipinos, need to help them continue to do their good work by patronizing their businesses, investing in them, encouraging their young people to be entrepreneurs and chefs, and to love and celebrate our food and culture,” Pablo says.
“As the product of a colonized history, I do not think we should stand to be further exploited. In fact, we need to RECLAIM and CLAIM. Who we are as Filipinos and our cultural products like our cuisine are valuable. This is our heritage, no one else's. Our food is already delicious. If we can seize upon deeper truths: That our cuisine is valuable, that we do not need ask for outside validation, and that our cuisine and our culture is worth defending. We need to call our dishes by their names, by their dialect names, by their [Filipino] names, write their names in baybayin on our menus. Through understanding our food we can understand ourselves. Through loving our food we can love ourselves.”
Filipino cuisine has a long way to go towards gaining the worldwide popularity enjoyed by its Asian neighbors. Until then, chefs, cooks, food-lovers, and websites like Filipino Kitchen continue to spread the word about the joys of the Filipino feast.